The Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., opened on Monday in a new location after a years-long effort to design and build a replacement for its old home across town.

The Canadian Canoe Museum’s newly opened location is a worthy, welcoming place to paddle through history.

The newly built Canadian Canoe Museum looks as if it is in motion: The building pushes southward toward a nearby creek, two of its walls coming together into a point that resembles a bow cutting through water. Cedar and steel panels on its façade shimmer in the afternoon sunlight.

The museum itself has been on a journey, culminating May 13 with the opening of its new building in Peterborough, Ont. The facility stands on two hectares next to Little Lake, part of the Trent-Severn Waterway, and it includes a boathouse and a long cedar dock where visitors can get their toes wet.

“We’re trying to pull you outside,” said the museum’s director, Carolyn Hyslop, on a recent tour. “The museum has been shaped to show you the collection and also get you right into the water.”

That collection, which includes 600 extraordinary watercraft from Indigenous and settler makers, now has a worthy home. The 65,000-square-foot, $45-million building was shaped by Peterborough’s Unity Design Studio. It builds on the rich poetic potential of wood and hide, gunnels and chines, blades and shafts and shoulders.

This is clear inside the front door. Here, beams of glue-laminated fir and curved panels of laminated spruce speak the language of wood and watercraft. A wood-burning fire unfurls the scent of cedar. The ceiling is lined by oak fins; hanging from the ceiling is a birchbark canoe made by William and Mary Commanda of Kitigan-Zibi, upside-down to show its curved ribs. “There is a resonance between the framing of the canoe and of the building itself,” says curator Jeremy Ward.

The museum provides a lobby and event space at one end, linked to what will be a newly renaturalized wetland. At the other end a black box provides second-floor exhibition space and safe ground-floor storage for the collection. Visitors can peek through a window to see 500 canoes resting on custom racks, a glimpse of the depths of the history.

Hundreds of canoes and kayaks sit on the racks in the Collection Hall. The boats in the Exhibit Hall include a birchbark canoe, top left, by William and Mary Commanda of Kitigan-Zibi.

In the atrium, boats hang from the rafters; on the Exhibit Hall floor, a map shows Canada’s waterways.

The collection includes the red Chestnut Prospector of filmmaker and environmentalist Bill Mason, and the yellow canoe that musician Gordon Lightfoot used on the Nahanni River and other scenic spots.

The design was led by Bill Lett and Michael Gallant of Unity, and Mr. Lett says the form and technology of the canoe have inevitably shaped the architecture. “But you don’t want to be too literal,” the architect cautioned. “The wood in this building is engineered; it’s not traditional heavy timber. There are a lot of analogies that aim to celebrate the history of the canoe and how that history has changed.”

The institution, founded in 1997, admirably complicates the history of the canoe. This is not only about voyageurs and cottagers and Pierre Elliott Trudeau in a buckskin jacket – though those touchstones of Canadian mythology are present here.

Rather, the CCM’s account of the canoe begins with watercraft made and used by precontact Indigenous peoples, and it continues with recent and contemporary canoe-makers such as the Commanda family. “A big piece of the museum’s work is not to leave Indigenous stories in the past, but to bring them forward,” Ms. Hyslop says.

The museum, which stands on traditional territory of the Williams Treaties First Nations, uses its name in three languages. In the Michi Saagiig dialect of Anishinaabemowin it is Jiimaan Kinomaagewin, or roughly “canoe place of learning for all.” Exhibition panels, too, are trilingual.

Signs give the Anishinaabemowin, English and French names of the museum, whose exhibit panels use the three languages throughout.

It takes visitors through the precontact history of water travel across Turtle Island, and the making, trade and fishing practices of a dozen nations. And simply as objects, these demand attention: One 12-metre Nuu-Chah-Nulth dugout, carved from a single cedar, is an essay in working with nature. Nearby rests a ceremonial canoe from the Gogodala people of Papua New Guinea – different in purpose and decoration, but not dissimilar in its construction.

The exhibition is a fascinating ride. It moves through the history of canoe tripping and recreational canoeing and touches on some heights of competitive watercraft: one of Adam van Koeverden’s racing kayaks is on display, and the career of Claudia Kerckhoff-Van Wijkheld gets a warm tribute.

Downstairs, a workshop will allow visitors and school groups to get their hands on canoe-making. Nearby is the boathouse and the dock, where canoes will be for rent and where staff can take visitors out on guided trips in a sheltered cove.

“Anyone who visits here, we hope, will see that connection with the water,” Mr. Ward says. “It’s one thing to be inside a dark room learning about the history and another thing to be in a canoe.” Indeed, the museum’s maps of Canada are all oriented with south at the top – a gesture to a different, older understanding of the land in which waterways are in the foreground.

This all makes sense on the current lakeside site. The museum’s previous home was in a building where the Outboard Marine Corporation had made, ironically, outboard motors. Expansion plans began a decade ago, and the museum settled on a site next to the Peterborough Lift Lock National Historic Site. The museum launched the design competition in 2016. (Lisa Rochon, The Globe and Mail’s former architecture critic, chaired the competition jury.) They selected a proposal from the Irish office Heneghan Peng and Toronto’s Kearns Mancini. Construction was set to begin in early 2020. But that effort was sunk – at the very last moment — by unexpected soil contamination and then the pandemic.

The museum changed tack with remarkable speed. They hired local firm Lett Architects (now Unity), and settled on the new site and a smaller building. The building was delivered through an “integrated project delivery” model in which the architects partnered with Chandos Construction and other consultants. The result was remarkably cheap and fast, and the architecture – which is usually a casualty in such situations – survived.

Heneghan Peng and Kearns Mancini Architects had a different design for the museum, and a different intended location, but the cost of cleaning up polluted land forced a change of plans. SUPPLIED BY HENEGHAN PENG AND KEARNS MANCINI ARCHITECTS

Still, it is a shame that the previous scheme had to be abandoned. Heneghan Peng designed a long, curving, single-storey building bermed into the earth along the Trent-Severn Waterway. It would have been among the most interesting new buildings in Canada.

It would have joined another modernist masterpiece in Peterborough: the campus of Trent University, on the Otonabee River just outside of town. Architect Ron Thom delivered a richly sculptural ensemble of buildings that evoked Oxbridge colleges, Scandi concrete and the Canadian Shield. The designers included Peter Smith and his business partner Bill Lett – Mr. Lett’s father and namesake.

Those elders clearly taught the younger generation of designers a thing or two. The new Canoe Museum doesn’t enjoy the wild ambitions and endless budgets of 1960s Trent, but it packs in enough spatial creativity and elegant details to honour that tradition. Even the windows to the warehouse, which visually open up the archive to visitors, represent smart architectural thinking.

Many new public buildings in Canada are just mean; this one feels generous and hospitable. Mr. Gallant, the architect, credits the project’s success to a heavily local team of tradespeople. “It was like a good old barn-raising,” he said. One tree may enough to make a canoe, but to get it in the water is a collective effort.

The Globe and Mail, May 16, 2024